Gardening

How to grow and eat prickly pear cactuses

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Prickly pear cactuses are low-maintenance perennial plants that produce both a vegetable and a fruit. Find out how to grow prickly pear cacti and use them in your kitchen! 


We love growing and eating interesting and unusual foods we can’t easily find at the grocery store or find organically. And when it comes time to cook those foods, we love finding out how they’re used in other cultures so we can use those recipes as inspiration in our kitchen.       

Growing up, I enjoyed eating the ripe prickly pear fruit that would ripen in the summer on our neighbor’s cactus plant. This wasn’t theft, mind you. The neighbor wasn’t much of a gardener and would probably have been happy if I’d eaten the whole plant. 

After The Tyrant and I merged and began developing our own garden full of rare and unusual plants, one of our best friends offered us a prickly pear cactus pad from a bred variety of spineless Eastern prickly pears (Opuntia humifusa).

The oldest prickly pear cactus plant at Tyrant Farms that was started from a single pad four years prior to this photo.

A four year old prickly pear plant at Tyrant Farms that was started from a single pad.

We happily took the pad, learned all about how to grow prickly pears, and started our first prickly pear patch in our garden. A few years, later, we now have a beautiful cluster of low-maintenance prickly pears that creates lots of visual interest in our garden and food in our kitchen.

Last spring and summer the plants were big enough that we even made our first cooked nopales, which taste like citrusy green beans! (More on that below.) 

Finding the biggest prickly pear cactus we’ve ever seen…

Earlier this summer while out on an adventure in the country, we drove past the largest prickly pear plant we’ve ever seen. It stood about 6′ tall x  10′ wide with giant pads and huge red fruit.

Despite its large spines and our lack of gloves, I managed to remove a couple of the large cactus pads for propagation, carefully placing them into a cardboard box we had in our trunk.

New cuttings from a giant prickly pear plant we found growing in the wild.

New cuttings from a giant prickly pear plant we found growing in the wild.

Those pads are now happily rooted and growing in an outdoor pot at Tyrant Farms. (Because of the large spines, we didn’t want to grow this one on ground level with our ducks.)

In this article, we’re going to teach you all about how to grow and eat your own prickly pear cactuses (cacti)! 

How to grow edible prickly pear cactus 

This prickly pear plant was a single pad that was potted up about 3 months ago.

This prickly pear plant was a single pad that was potted up about 3 months ago.

Plant selection

There are at least 1,800 species of prickly pear cacti native to the Americas. Prickly pears are in the Opuntia genus in the Cactus family (Cactaceae). 

All prickly pear cactuses produce edible pads, flowers, and fruit. However, they can vary pretty dramatically in plant size, pad size, fruit color/size, and fruit taste.

Growing prickly pear cactus from seed or pads 

A few new prickly pear cactuses we started this year. The one in the small teal pot is a

A few new prickly pear cactuses we started this year. The one in the small teal pot is a “spineless” prickly pear that will be grown in-ground. The larger one in the red pot has large spines and will remain in the pot to keep the spines away from our ducks.

You can grow prickly pears cacti from either seeds or pads/cuttings. We recommend growing your prickly pears from pads rather than seeds for a few reasons: 

  • You can probably find some for free growing in your area; 
  • You’ll know exactly what the plant looks and grows like (including spine/thorn size, fruit quality, pad size, etc.);
  • You’ll have no doubt that it can grow in your climate zone if you source it locally;
  • It’s faster and easier to grow from pads/cuttings than from seeds.  

Can’t find local prickly pear cactus pads? Prefer to grow from seed? Whether you decide to grow prickly pears from seed or pads, you can find a good selection of both prickly pear seeds and pads/cuttings on Amazon.  

Option 1: How to grow prickly pear cactus from seed

You can buy prickly pear seeds online or get mature seeds from ripe prickly pear fruit. Follow these instructions to grow prickly pear cacti from seed. 

1. In the spring or summer when nighttime temps are over 50°F, prepare to sow your cactus seeds in flats outdoors.  

2. Fill seed trays with a quality cactus-specific soil mix. (Cactuses prefer lighter, better-draining soil than most other plants.)

3. Using sandpaper or a knife, carefully scrape off the hard outer coating on part of the prickly pear seed. This helps moisture reach the interior, which speeds up and improves seed germination rates. Be careful NOT to damage the inside of the seed. 

4. Sow the cactus seeds about 1/8″ deep. 

5. Keep in seed tray in a warm spot (over 70°F), and keep the soil mix damp but not wet. Prickly pear seed germination time can vary pretty dramatically depending on the variety grown and the growing conditions. Germination can be as quick as 1 week or take many months.

6. As soon as your cactus seeds germinate, put them in a full sun spot and keep their soil damp but not wet until the roots have fully established in the seed trays. 

7. Transplant cacti seedlings into a hot, full sun spot with well-draining soil. We put our prickly pears in the hottest, driest microclimates in our yard – next to hot pavement/driveways.  

How to grow prickly pear cactus from pads (recommended method) 

You can buy rooted prickly pear pads/cuttings online, which saves you some time. However, if you have access to a prickly pear cactus that you want to get cuttings from, here’s what to do: 

1. Cut a prickly pear pad from the top of a mature prickly pear plant at the attachment joint. You’ll want to wear thick leather gloves and use a sharp knife. 

2. Let the removed pad form a callous BEFORE planting it. This is extremely important for transplant success. If you immediately plant the cactus pad, there’s a good chance it will get infected and rot.

Instead, you want to let the injury dry out and form a callous. We simply leave our cactus pads indoors for about 10-14 days for this step. The pad should be out of direct sunlight and in an area that gets good air circulation.   

3. After 10-14 days, bury the cut end of the cactus pad about 2″ deep in a container/pot filled with dampened quality cactus-specific soil mix. For the first week, place the container in a part shade outdoor spot that gets no more than 4-6 hours of direct sunlight, and keep the soil damp, but not wet. 

After a week, you can put the container in a full sun spot, but be careful not to shake the cactus pad loose from the soil if/when moving the container.        

4. You’ll know when the pad has rooted because the pad will plump up and you’ll see new pads beginning to form along the top ridge on the pad. Allow the plant to full establish itself in the container before transplanting into its final spot.  

New pads forming on the prickly pear pad? That means it's rooted! How to grow prickly pear cactus.

New pads forming on the prickly pear pad? That means it’s rooted!

5. Transplant cacti seedlings into a hot, full sun spot with well-draining soil. As mentioned in the seed starting section, we put our prickly pears in the hottest, driest microclimates in our yard – next hot pavement/driveways. 

*Section note: You can also grow new prickly pear cactuses by removing a fruit and following the same steps above for growing a cactus from a cut pad. 

How to prepare and eat prickly pear cactus 

There are three edible parts to a prickly pear cactus:

  1. Nopal/pads – used as a raw or cooked vegetable;
  2. Flowers – used similar to lettuce in salads or can be used to make fermented flower cordials;
  3. Pear, tuna, or Indian fig – the fruit of prickly pears goes by many different names, and is used in a variety of dishes from desserts to drinks.  

How to harvest and eat nopales: prickly pear cactus pads 

Nopales, prickly pear cactus pads preparation for cooking

Nopales sliced and ready for cooking!

1. The best nopales are the younger pads at the top of the plant. These are usually harvested in the spring when they’re more tender – especially if you intend to eat them raw.

However, you can harvest nopales any time of the year; just keep in mind that older pads are going to be better used in cooked recipes.     

2. Wear thick gloves! Prickly pear pads are dotted with areoles (small bumps with indented centers). Each areole contains “glochids” (small barbed hairs) and possibly larger spines. Even “spineless” prickly pear cacti we’ve seen contain some glochids even if they don’t have large spines.

Prickly pear cactus glochids and spines.

Prickly pear cactus glochids and spines emerging from an areole.

If a glochid gets in your skin it can be quite painful and irritating, so you’ll want to pull it out as soon as possible and wash the area. 

3. Use one gloved hand to hold the top of the pad and the other to cut the pad off from the attachment joint with a sharp knife.

4. Bring the pads inside but keep those gloves on! Next you’ll want to remove all the glochids and spines using either a vegetable peeler or a paring knife. Then give the pads a thorough rinsing. 

5. The pads can now be cut into strips for cooked or raw nopales recipes or stored in the fridge in ziplock bags for a month or more. We’ll share some of our favorite nopales recipes soon!    

How to harvest and eat prickly pear fruit

Prickly pear cactus fruit. This variety is dark red, but there are also orange-fruited varieties. You can make out the seeds in the center of the fruit.

Prickly pear cactus fruit. This variety is dark red, but there are also orange-fruited varieties. You can make out the seeds in the center of the fruit.

1. Different prickly pear cactus species have different colored fruit that usually ripens to bright orange or red. The fruit should be brightly colored and slightly soft to the touch when ripe. 

2. Wear thick gloves when harvesting the fruit of prickly pears because they are also covered in glochids. You can either snap the ripe fruit off or cut it off with a knife. 

3. There are a few different ways to remove the glochids: 

a) Rub them off the sides with your gloves, then remove both ends of the fruit with a knife before skinning. 

b) Cut off both ends with a knife, then peel the skin off (glochids and all) with a knife or vegetable peeler. 

4. There are infinite numbers of ways to use prickly pear fruit. Note that each fruit contains lots of small, hard seeds, which are edible and tasteless, but not pleasant to bite into. You can eat the fruit raw or cook and strain the seeds before turning it into sauces, jams, drinks, desserts. 

What do prickly pear cactus fruit taste like?  

Prickly pear cactus fruit are mild but quite flavorful. The taste can vary significantly from cultivar to cultivar, but is similar to a watermelon-pear combination with a little hint of citrusy tang.


Prickly pear cactus FAQs

A few other common questions and answers about prickly pear cacti: 

Are prickly pear pads leaves?

No. Technically, prickly pear cactus pads are a photosynthetic stem that functions as a leaf. 

Can prickly pear cactuses survive the winter? 

Yes, prickly pear cactuses can survive the winter — assuming you live in an area of the world where the species of prickly pear you’ve selected grows. For instance, Eastern prickly pears (Opuntia humifusa) grows in most states from Colorado east (except for the most northeastern states) 

Prickly pear plants contain specialized chemicals that function like antifreeze, keeping the cells from rupturing during freezes. 

How big do prickly pear plants grow?

Prickly pear plant size varies by species, usually ranging from 2′-6′ tall. The older the plant, the wider the plant as they tend to sprawl. (The biggest prickly pear plants we’ve ever seen were about 10′ wide x 6′ tall.)

New sections of the plant become weighed down, touch the ground, set root, and continue spreading outward. This is a relatively slow, multi-year process, so don’t worry about your prickly pear taking over your garden. 

How long do prickly pear plants live?  

Prickly pear plants can live for decades. The plant I picked from as a kid is now about 30 years old! 

How long does it take to grow a prickly pear cactus or fruit? When can you start harvesting nopales? 

If you grow prickly pears from seeds, you’ll want to wait until ~third year before you consider harvesting nopales/pads. Our plants take the better part of a growing season to create an entirely new round of pads.

Prickly pears should start fruiting within 3-4 years from transplanted cuttings.  

We think we confused this prickly pear cactus. When we removed teh pad from the parent plant it had flowers on it, that would have turned to fruit. It looks like this immature fruit set but is also forming a new pad on top of the fruit.

When we removed the pad from the parent plant it had flowers on it, that would have turned to fruit. It looks like this immature fruit set but is also forming a new pad on top of the fruit. Believe it or not, you can actually grow new prickly pear cactuses by planting the fruit just as you would a pad. 

Can you grow prickly pear cactus indoors?

Yes, but they can get rather large. If you do grow them indoors, make sure they’re in a sunny south-facing window or sunroom.  

Why is my prickly pear cactus turning yellow?

Probably either from lack of sun or overwatering (or both). Cacti don’t require much water and do NOT like having “wet feet.”

Make sure your prickly pears are growing in a full-sun spot with well-draining soil. Even though they like full sun, when you’re transitioning them to full sun outdoors be careful not to sunburn them. For the first week, keep them in a part shade spot before transplanting them into full sun.    

How long do prickly pear cactus bloom?

Prickly pears typically bloom from spring – summer and even all the way up until first frost. Each mature pad can produce multiple flowers and fruit. 

How fast do prickly pear cactus grow? 

Prickly pear cacti are fairly slow growing plants. Our oldest four year old prickly pear plant (started from a single pad) is now about 4′ wide x 3′ tall. 


We hope you enjoy the fruits and veggies of your prickly pear cacti as much as we do! 

KIGI,

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